Director: Cate Shortland
Writers: Eric Pearson, Jac Shaeffer, Ned Benson
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz
Cinematographer: Gabriel Beristain
Editors: Leigh Folsom Boyd, Matthew Schmidt
Streaming on: DisneyPlus Hotstar
It took the death of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to finally accord her the respect she deserved. In some ways, the solo Black Widow movie is too little, too late, a retroactive, long-overdue acknowledgement of the significance of one of the original six Avengers. Another way to see it is that it comes at precisely the right point in the timeline — with Natasha’s death in Avengers: Endgame (2019) still a way off, there’s no real mortal vulnerability in this film. What there is instead is emotional vulnerability. Natasha, a spy who’s spent lifetimes putting up fronts and adopting new identities, begins her movie facing herself in the mirror and ends it by walking away with a newfound realisation of who she is. The film not only establishes the birth of this character, but also the legacy she’s cemented in the wake of her death.
It’s fitting that Cate Shortland, whose last film, Berlin Syndrome (2017), followed a woman trapped inside an apartment, is the director who captures Natasha’s oppressive, stifling past. Just as an innocuous apartment assumes an insidious significance when its double-paned windows and bolted doors are revealed in Berlin Syndrome, the symbols of childhood gradually become warped initiations into adulthood in Black Widow. A mother doesn’t teach her child to ride a bike, she teaches her how to taxi a plane off a runway as gunfire rains down on them. An injection doesn’t signal a routine visit to a doctor’s office, it’s a weapon used to drug children into compliance. Blurry home videos, in a perverse twist, capture the isolation and loss of kids now left homeless.
Picking up from the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), the film finds Natasha now a fugitive on the run. The atmosphere is suffocating, the walls are closing in. Black Widow is infused with something MCU movies rarely are — quiet. Even when flashbacks depict Natasha’s family, a group of undercover spies, having to pack up and flee abruptly, there’s no urgency to get on the move, just a slow-creeping sadness for what they’re about to leave behind. Years later, she must reunite with this makeshift family (Rachel Weisz, David Harbour and Florence Pugh) to bring down the shadowy organisation that once enslaved her, and now continues to traffic young girls. All these beats — a protagonist operating outside the law who has a run-in with a old friend on the way to take down a nefarious corporation — are right out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) but are reworked skilfully enough to feel compelling in their own right.
Black Widow’s biggest triumph lies in how it counters the male gaze through which Natasha has been viewed so far. In Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), written and directed by Joss Whedon, Natasha directs the blame for her forced sterilisation inwards. She calls herself a monster for her inability to bear children, despite it being a decision made for her, against her will. In Black Widow, her foster sister Yelena Belova (an excellent Pugh) directs that gaze outwards, describing to her father in excruciating detail how her uterus and ovaries were surgically removed. The speech isn’t a means of making Yelena relive her trauma, but a way of confronting a man who abandoned her into a depraved organisation as a child, in blissful ignorance of what that would entail. Yelena’s voice is measured, her hand movements precise. It’s her father who succumbs to acute discomfort, his guilt finally catching up with him. In another scene, Natasha’s sexy-but-impractical fighting stances, which go all the way back to her first MCU appearance in Iron Man 2 (2010), become fodder for lighthearted sisterly banter.
Occasionally, this movie succumbs to the MCU’s penchant for big blockbuster excess. A jailbreak sequence starts off sleek and contained before throwing in rampaging crowds, a bazooka and finally, an avalanche at the end for good measure, leaving in its wake the kind of massive collateral damage that’s characteristic of superhero movies. The film also continues the Marvel tradition of an underutilised, forgettable villain. Taskmaster is given a riveting backstory, revealed as a twist, but under-delivers for an adversary with the formidable ability to mimic the fighting style of any opponent. There are third-act explosions, as is customary, but the stakes are anchored in enough emotion to hold weight. The deep-seated craving for a sense of family, a theme also explored in superlative WandaVision, whose showrunner Jac Schaeffer co-wrote Black Widow, is lent touching dimensions. What makes up a family? Anyone who pushes you to be the best version of yourself, Natasha, who’s spent years with the Avengers but still operated as a lone wolf, discovers here. Past MCU movies have painted Natasha as needing the Avengers to give her a sense of purpose. The end of Black Widow crystallizes what’s been clear all along — it’s they who need her.
In most other solo MCU movies, the absence of the other Avengers feels like a glaring omission, keenly felt. Where are the rest of Earth’s mightiest heroes when the Dark Elves are wreaking havoc in Greenwich? Or Dormammu’s Dark Dimension engulfing the planet? In Black Widow, however, their absence comes as a relief. This is Natasha’s story. The catharsis she craves can’t be hard-won by anyone else but herself, on her own terms. After a decade of being a sidekick, her narrative is finally her own.
It ends all too soon. During the film’s post-credits scene, set after Avengers: Endgame (2019), Yelena presses her forehead against Natasha’s gravestone and weeps. It’s a moment fraught with grief, one that not only underscores Natasha’s titanic legacy, but also assails audiences with the full weight of her loss. A moment later, the spell is broken. Another character arrives, loudly blows her nose and dutifully teases the next instalment of the MCU. “We have what we have when we have it,” is what Natasha once told Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in a now-deleted scene of Civil War. Black Widow proves that the MCU is lucky to have had Natasha Romanoff for as long as it did. If only it had appreciated her more.